It is worth mentioning here that the “AI” that powers the other Civs is definitely Artificial, but not particularly Intelligent. There is only one set of algorithms that it uses regardless of the difficulty level. This basically consists of a series of if-then statements in the code, and the “AI” cannot learn or adapt, so this is the edge an intelligent human player has. That said, the code was written by people who really understand on a deep level what the game is all about, so you should not expect to just start winning right away, particularly if you are new to the game, let alone new to the whole 4-x genre. It does take time. So what does distinguish the difficulty levels?
Well, at Chieftain and Warlord,the first two difficulty levels, the thumb on the scales benefits you, the human player. At Regent level, all players are equal. At higher difficulty levels, the AI players get advantages. The factors here are the cost of building units (higher for the AI at low levels, lower for the AI at higher levels), getting free units for the AI at higher levels, and so on. You can see a full list at the Civilization Wiki. So if you want to learn the game, it does make sense to play your first game at the Chieftain level until you can easily win. Then if you want a bit more challenge, move up to the Warlord level, then Regent, and so on. And remember, playing games is supposed to be fun. There is no reason to move to a really high difficulty level unless that is something you really enjoy doing.
One area where you as a human can “out-think” the AI is in managing your units in combat. Remember that Normal military units have 3 hit points, Veteran units have 4 hit points, and Elite units have 5 hit points. And some units have more strength on defense, others on offense. And the AI will tend to behave predictably since it is controlled by algorithms. In that line, there is a revealing story from the early days leading to Microprose. Bill Stealey and Sid Meier were co-workers at another company, and went to a conference in Las Vegas, where they found an arcade game involving flying a jet fighter. Stealey was an ex-Air Force pilot, so he went first on this game, and wracked up a good score. Then Sid took a turn, and and significantly beat Stealey’s score. The reason is that while Stealey was playing, Sid was watching and figuring out the AI algorithms. Sid then said he could write a better game, and they founded Microprose to publish flight simulator games, before Sid got the idea for the first Civilization game.
In any case, a good player will manage units by taking advantage of terrain to improve the odds of survival. Attack from Forest or Hill terrain, or just fortify in place in good defensive terrains. The AI will tend to keep attacking even if it is losing units. It may succeed in taking down your unit, but at a cost of 2-3 of its own, and that is the kind of trade you should like. Also, a good player will pull back a unit that is down to one hit point and switch to a unit that still has all of its hit points. The idea is to save a unit, because they will heal in a few turns and get all of their hit points back. The AI tends to overlook this, but you shouldn’t.
Of course, there is more to war than the tactics of unit management, important though that is. There are strategic considerations, and the first of these in any war is to have clearly defined war aims, and then stick to them. For example, suppose one of the other Civs planted a city in the middle of your area, blocking you from land you could use. And that Civ is not all that strong. You can go to war and get that city, but once you have done that, do you stop? Possibly you should if that city was the only reason for the war in the first place. And of course it may depend to some degree on what victory type you are aiming for. Going for a Military victory (Conquest or Domination) will push you towards wiping out the opposition, but if you do so make very sure you are the stronger party here. Long wars can create two problems. First, while you are cranking out military units and fighting, the remaining Civs in the game are researching Techs, developing their cities, exploring and settling cities, and leaving you behind. If you are so strong that you can crank out units and simultaneously keep up your research and develop your cities, etc., then you probably are already well on the way to a Domination or Conquest victory, and don’t need to worry so much.
The other factor, though, is war weariness. This is a mechanic introduced in Civilization III that replaces the way it was handled in Civilization II. In Civ II, each unit had to be supported from a specific city, and that support required a Shield. This meant that you were limited in producing units because each unit reduced your ability to produce anything in the city. Then they added a mechanic that said that units not in a city would make citizens unhappy, and this could throw the city into a riot and all activity there would stop. In Civ III they changed that around. Now units are not supported by specific cities, but are supported by your empire in general. You get a certain number of units free of support, then they start to cost you Gold each turn. And the longer the war goes on, the more discontent your citizens experience, until they go into riots and shut everything down. When that happens, you need to get the city going again if you want anything produced, and you only have four options:
- Give them Entertainment – This removes a citizen from productive activity and assigns them to being an Entertainer. This means that any Food, Shields, and Gold they might have produced when assigned to a tile are no longer being produced. Your productivity might go down, your Treasury could suffer, and you may go into Starvation and even population loss. This is not the best option, I would argue, but it is the one the game pushes you towards. When a city goes into riot, a helpful screen pops up offering to give them some Entertainment, which may make you think that is the obvious response. If this is due to War Weariness, however, you are taking the first step on a downward spiral. Soon another city will riot, then another. And the root cause has not been addressed at all. Your people are sick of being at war, and you are ignoring them.
- Change the Revenue slider – Go to your Domestic Advisor screen, and at the top is a Revenue slider. The first slider allocated revenue to Science, and the second one allocates revenue to Happiness. Think of it as buying the things that make life worth living. This is the first place I would go to solve a Happiness problem. Note that the slider changes this for your whole empire, but what starts in one city frequently happens in others as well.
- Find some luxury resources – These help make people happy, and the effects are spread over your whole empire. If you have luxury tiles within your empire, make sure they are linked to your cities by roads. Check the Resources page at the Civilization Wiki for more on Luxury resources. And if you don’t have any in your empire, see if you can trade for some with other empires if you have a capital-to-capital connection via Roads, Harbors, or Airports. All trade in Civ III requires this kind of connection. And if you have one city in your empire that is not connected to the other cities, it won’t get the benefit of the resources those other cities have. As I said, you will want to develop your road network for a variety of reasons.
- Build some Happiness promoting buildings – This is a longer term solution. It isn’t a bad one if done properly, but depending on the building, it might take 5-10-15 or more turns to build such a building. And building a Happiness promoting Wonder would take even longer. It has the advantage of resolving your long-term problem while keeping your city productive. But a city in riot cannot produce anything at all, and you can’t even purchase (Hurry) a building while your city is in riot.
So when a war goes on too long and your population goes into riot, you are in danger, and if you start by trying to buy Happiness or diverting Revenue form Science to Happiness, you could start a long downward spiral. Your best bet is probably to use the slider to stop the riots, make peace with the other guy, and start putting your empire in order. Build some Cathedrals or Colosseums to promote Happiness, and let things quiet down. Your War Weariness stops being active as soon as you make peace, but it is still there under the surface. It dissipates over time, but it can take 43 turns to completely dissipate (See chart in Civilization Fanatics).
So the two rules for managing wars boil down to:
- Do short, sharp victorious wars then make peace. Know your war aims up front, and don’t go past them.
- If you are going to do a Conquest or Domination strategy, prepare for it up front by making sure to get some Happiness Wonders and by building Happiness Buildings. And grab all of the luxuries you can.
This is as far as I plan to take my discussion of Civilization III. A complete analysis of every aspect of the game would take a book, and I have no interest in writing it. But this should be enough to help you get started. Meanwhile, we have more games to talk about.